A Church for Forgotten Places
A Church for Forgotten Places

By Jerry Harris

Forgottonia . . . would you believe it’s a real place? The place is real but the name was more of a publicity stunt. It was adopted by 14 counties in west-central Illinois that were intentionally neglected by the state and federal government with regard to interstates and rail service in the early 1970s. Without interstate highway access, the region was denied decent transportation for commerce as other towns and cities benefitted from them. Businesses and not-for-profit entities dried up or left the area and calls for fair treatment with tax dollars for infrastructure fell on deaf ears in government.

So, one man, Neal Gamm, came up with a stunt to get the country’s attention. He started petitions in 14 Illinois counties to declare Forgottonia’s independence from America and become an independent country. He did this to declare war and promptly surrender, making the area eligible for foreign aid under the law. Gamm even went so far as to declare a capital, Fandon, Illinois (a near ghost town), and a flag (white, for surrender).

For a time, Gamm received some attention with his stunt, but after a year, little had changed, as tax dollars still flowed unabated to the larger cities. Over the last 40 years, west-central Illinois and northeast Missouri have been slowly receiving the attention that produces the infrastructure that other regions have long enjoyed, but it has never quite caught up.

All of this has created an interesting region in west-central Illinois, northeast Missouri, and southeastern Iowa. It’s a landscape filled with rich farmland and dotted with small towns and villages, urban clusters, and micropolitan communities. It’s a place where the soil is as rich as the history, a land where Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Walt Disney, General John Pershing, and J.C. Penney spent their formative years. It was the place Barton W. Stone chose to move after leaving Cane Ridge, Kentucky, and where he died. It’s also a place that proved to be fertile for The Crossing, a Restoration Movement church that not only claimed a community, but the whole region by leveraging its multisite approach.

The Crossing, formerly known as Payson Road Christian Church, was launched in March 1974 and for its first 25 years rode the elevator up and down between 100 and 250 in attendance. Its home was Quincy, Illinois, which sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and is the largest city of the region with a population of 40,000. The city’s architecture is magnificent, representing German craftsmanship going back to the mid-1800s. It is known as the “Gem City.” President Bill Clinton chose Quincy as an illustration of a model city by traveling there immediately after his final State of the Union address.

Envisioning the Future
I came to Payson Road about six months before that, in August 1998. The church was running about 230, trying to recover from a recent moral failure in its leadership. The church was struggling to see a future as they were mourning their immediate past. That vision for the future encompassed an idea to purchase the former home of John Wood Community College, a 22-acre campus with a 64,000-square-foot building on the leading edge of the city. It was a bold step of faith for the leaders, but it proved to move the vision of the congregation toward its bright future. With the move, Payson Road became The Crossing, and over the next seven years it grew to more than 1,500 in attendance, outgrowing the space it used for worship.

About that time, 2005-06, we recognized two big challenges. The first was obvious: we needed a larger worship space to manage the growth God was providing. The second was harder to see and much more ominous. Quincy wasn’t a growing community, and eventually everyone in town would have made a decision about whether or not The Crossing was a good fit for them. What would happen then? Was there a way to reach out with the gospel beyond just our community?

The first challenge was met quickly with a new worship space, lobby, and bathrooms. The second challenge was met with a model from Oklahoma City, lifechurch.tv, which was holding services in six locations at the time; lifechurch.tv gave us the opportunity to visit and take a three-day look behind the scenes. I had heard of the multisite approach but was skeptical, especially considering my location and what I perceived as a lack of willingness for people to accept video teaching. That visit turned my presuppositions upside down.

For the first time, I could envision The Crossing as a regional church; I dreamed of a church with five locations, reaching out to communities that would never believe they could have access to a less traditional church like ours. I thought of the large rural landscape all around us and dreamed of being a church that might reach into every nearby community.

Reaching Out with Multisite
Our first multisite attempt was a location 60 miles northeast of Quincy in Macomb, Illinois. Our approach broke nearly every rule for church planting. I had never heard of a nonmetropolitan church doing a multisite launch, so we had to make it up as we went. Most churches plant in growing communities, but Macomb was just trying to hold its own with only about 13,000 permanent residents (outside of university students).

While church plants were doing mobile church in schools, we invested in a 56,000-square-foot grocery store. Converting big boxes wasn’t done much then. We also purchased in a part of town that was a bit depressed, not exactly what church planters would advise you to do, but perfect for our target. Big money, big building, big risk . . . and big payoff! On opening day in October 2007 we had 874 in attendance, and while that number went down after opening, today The Crossing Macomb averages about 1,200, nearly 10 percent of its community, each week!

Success in Macomb gave us more courage to push the new approach. Our next location was in Kirksville, Missouri, 75 miles due west of Quincy. Kirksville is another town in plateau with a population of about 17,000. We purchased a former shoe factory on 19 acres, another big box to convert. Using Macomb as an example, The Crossing Kirksville was born in November 2008 and today runs more than 600 in attendance.

Each location tells a great story and yields so much more understanding. Our 929 campus was never intended to be a campus, but a long-term discipleship location for men recovering from addiction. God had other plans. Today, located in a residential area near downtown Quincy, that campus reaches 500 each weekend in a Lutheran church building constructed in 1874 that we purchased.

We learned that people would give up amenity for community, so we reevaluated our model and adapted it for smaller locations. We went into rented spaces in both Pittsfield, Illinois, and Hannibal, Missouri. Both now have permanent sites. Pike County (formerly Pittsfield) runs about 500 for an area with a population of fewer than 6,000. Hannibal runs 1,200 weekly in a community of 17,000.

Our first acquisition was a church in Lima, Illinois, a town of 125. It now runs about 150 a weekend! Mt. Sterling, Illinois, was our second acquisition and now runs more than 400 in a town of 1,900. We hold four services in a maximum-security prison there, with about 150 inmates claiming The Crossing as their church home. Our Keokuk, Iowa, location put us into our third state and runs about 400 a weekend.

Band of Brothers
Our campus pastors truly are a band of brothers. They come from various walks of life: police officer, casket salesman, restaurant owner, medical office manager, Applebee’s waiter, bank vice president, safety manager, and so on. Today, they are the linchpins to a network of churches reaching out with the gospel and the Restoration plea. They take new ground every day at their locations and come together on a regular basis for instruction, encouragement, resources, and fellowship. All the campus pastors have their own locations and staffs, but they are also part of something bigger, something that is making a difference in their part of the world.

What a journey it’s been launching multisites these last 10 years! Here is how it measures out. Our original campus now represents only 33 percent of our total attendance, but all of our attendance can be attributed to the people of that campus and their willingness to think outside of their own needs and their own community. Our regional influence is 165 miles wide. We’ve baptized nearly 4,000 in the last four years by the grace of God. In our communities, 7.8 percent of the population attends a Crossing location—our goal is 10 percent. The church has a half-million square feet of building space under roof, and we are about two years from being debt-free. The Crossing runs eight thrift stores that employ nearly 80 workers, with all of the proceeds going to local benevolence.

What some people might see as nothing more than miles and miles of countryside dotted with economically depressed communities of static or shrinking populations, we see as an empty canvas of opportunity just waiting to be filled with clusters of believers living out their faith and sharing it with others. With 10 present locations, The Crossing has plans to start at least seven more in the next couple of years. New towns have been identified and leaders are being raised up in this often-forgotten region in the middle of the flyover states of the Midwest.

Jerry Harris serves as publisher of Christian Standard Media and senior pastor at The Crossing, based in Quincy, Illinois.

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